Clichy-sous-Bois, France: A rabbi is stabbed in nearby Paris and Jack Bouccara thinks about the safety of his own congregation’s rabbi.
A car explodes near a Jewish school in Paris and Bouccara worries about his synagogue, a three-minute walk from his home.
French President Jacques Chirac announces that 700 French synagogues and other Jewish sites will need police protection if the American war against Iraq breaks out, and Bouccara fears that his synagogue might come under attack.
In this working-class suburb 20 miles northeast of Paris, the Centre Communautaire Israelite de Clichy-sous-Bois Monfermier is a nondescript, two-story brick building on a side street that was built 40 years ago to serve the community’s 300 Sephardic Jewish families, mostly from northern Africa. It lived in the shadows of the capital’s bigger and more prestigious Jewish houses of worship until October 2001, when Molotov cocktails were thrown at the building during Kol Nidre services, and August 2002, when the synagogue was attacked again.
Now the synagogue has become a symbol, a reference point for journalists and a pilgrimage spot for visiting Jewish delegations concerned about growing French anti-Semitism. Several other Jewish buildings in France have been vandalized in recent years, and a synagogue in Marseilles was destroyed, but the duality of the attacks here has earned the Centre Communitaire a measure of notoriety.
"What is happening here is a microcosm of what is taking place in France," says Dr. Gerson Shraer, a prominent member of the Clichy-sous-Bois Jewish community.
And the synagogue’s congregants, living in an 80 percent Arab city of 30,000, are scared.
"We are much more cautious than before," Bouccara says one recent evening, sitting at his living room table across from his wife, Ginette. Both are retirees, natives of Algeria who moved to France after some time in Israel. Both are active members of the synagogue.
Through an interpreter, next to photographs of Jerusalem and bookcases full of Hebrew texts, they sadly describe the deterioration of Jewish life here.
"There were friendships before": before the start of the intifada in Israel 22 years ago, before 9-11, Ginette says. Jews would shop in markets alongside Arabs, who also have roots in northern Africa.
Then "sporadic attacks" started. Ginette was roughed up twice. The couple’s car was damaged. Their son was attacked "many, many times," his kipa knocked off his head.
Then, on Yom Kippur eve, two weeks after 9-11, a car drove by the synagogue and Molotov cocktails were thrown through the synagogue’s front door. There were no injuries.
In the August 2002 attack, as the Arab violence in Israel escalated, two unidentified youths broke into the building’s basement one night and set it ablaze. Again, no injuries, but the basement was destroyed.
The synagogue has been repaired, its basement windows replaced with metal panels. But the damage to the congregants’ faith in their future here remains, a part of Jewish life like the graffiti that is regularly spray-painted on the synagogue walls and quickly erased.
The city’s Jews think about the attacks "a lot," Ginette says. "We can’t go to the market anymore." She’s started keeping her chai chain out of sight.
No arrests have followed the firebomb attacks. Suspects? "We think" the perpetrators are Arab, but there is no proof, Bouccara says.
Are the police, who have increased their patrols of the synagogue, doing enough to catch the culprits? "Not at all," he says.
None of his Arab acquaintances offered condolences after the well-publicized attacks, Bouccara says. The days of Jewish-Arab friendship here are over. But he adds a caveat: after the second attack, a Sunday morning solidarity meeting at the synagogue drew the participation of the city’s Catholic mayor, the city’s top-ranking priest and the imam from a mosque in a neighboring city.
"There are some good people," Bouccara says.
Last week he showed a delegation from the North American Boards of Rabbis the now-shuttered windows that line the sanctuary. They are kept closed during services, he told the visitors.
The 36-member NABOR delegation conducted a four-day mission to France to show its solidarity with French Jewry and take part in an interfaith conference with the Catholic Church.
During the conference, the newspaper Le Monde reported, critical remarks by NABOR’s president, Rabbi Marc Schneier, about France’s reticence to support American military action against Iraq were booed by the largely French audience.
To some of the visiting rabbis, the booing was a sign of anti-American feelings bordering on anti-Semitism.
At visits to Jewish schools and synagogues, the delegation heard a series of French Jews relate stories about attacks in the streets and the subways.
At the Clichy-sous-Bois synagogue, attendance at services has dropped in the last two years, Bouccara, "because we’re scared." A few families have moved out, making aliyah. He notices the nervous glances of worshipers when an unfamiliar face enters the sanctuary. Congregants check the premises when they come for services.
"Each time there is an attack [against Palestinians] in Israel, we feel conscious," Bouccara says.
Bouccara, who tells about the congregation’s rabbi being harassed by Arab gangs on his way to shul on Shabbat, still attends services every week.
"I’m not afraid. I want to show we’re not afraid," he says, "even if we feel afraid."
The couple’s grown children, who have moved to Israel, are urging their parents to join them.
The Bouccaras say they will return to Israel in a few years, earlier than they had planned, when they can start collecting their French pensions.
"We want to leave," Bouccara says. "We feel much safer in Israel, even if there are killings there."